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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Megabucks Mean New Lobby Group Will Have a Voice

March 01, 2001|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — They launched yet another lobby group in Sacramento on Wednesday. There wasn't much of a splash.

Very few reporters showed up for the event in the Capitol news conference room. That's reflective of the fact there already are enough lobbyists and special interests around here to fill a directory 1 1/4 inches thick. So one more or less hardly is breaking news.

This lobby, however, may warrant watching since it does have the potential to become one of the influential elite--perhaps another power center. That's because it brings to the table the substance politicians respect most: money.

Indeed, Silicon Valley megabucks. The new-tech rich finally are coming to Sacramento. They're bankrolling a new education lobby called EdVoice.

"We believe it will quickly become the vehicle for education reform in California," software entrepreneur Reed Hastings told reporters.

Hastings, 40, stood there in jeans and a blue denim shirt, looking as much like a stock car driver or rodeo rider as a fabulously wealthy political patron. His only bow to formality was a tan sport coat. It was the look of California's new economy.

In recent years, Silicon Valley's influence on Sacramento has been exaggerated and hyped. Lots of potential, but little presence. Its focus was on Washington.

One rich techie who didn't want to be identified told me: "We never found our legs in Sacramento. Because for most of the CEOs, Sacramento is a stop on the way to Tahoe--maybe. They don't know who [Assembly Speaker] Bob Hertzberg is. They know about [U.S. House Speaker] Denny Hastert."

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Although not directly exerting influence on legislators, Silicon Valley has affected state policy through the ballot initiative.

Entrepreneur Ron Unz sponsored and funded the ballot measure that eliminated California's bilingual education program. Hastings used the threat of a proposed initiative he'd already spent $4 million on to prod Sacramento into greatly increasing the number of charter schools.

Then last year, Hastings and venture capitalist John Doerr raised $40 million-plus from Silicon Valley for two propositions to reduce the vote requirement for local school bond issues. The first measure failed; the second passed.

Hastings says he concluded that for "a small fraction" of what he and his colleagues had been spending on initiatives, "we could get more done in Sacramento."

"An initiative is like going to war, and most wars can be prevented with diplomacy," says Hastings. "But from the perspective of impatient businesspeople, long-term coalition building is difficult. Many end up resorting to initiatives. You think you can just write checks and change things."

They'll still be writing checks, but in smaller amounts, and to candidates.

EdVoice contemplates a money-dispensing political action committee with a kitty of at least $2 million per election cycle, although it won't yet be that fat for the 2002 races.

The group already has an operating budget of $1 million-plus. Former Silicon Valley Assemblyman Ted Lempert, a Democrat, will run the outfit. It has hired a big Sacramento lobbying firm: Nielsen, Merksamer.

"This is serious," says Steven Merksamer, chief of staff to former Gov. George Deukmejian. "They're talking major league money. Hopefully there'll be major league results."

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EdVoice won't just be check-writing. It will be trying to patiently build a coalition of business execs, educators and pols--and already has signed up a zillion-member "advisory board." It also wants to develop a grass-roots organization of local school activists.

The idea is to build a Sacramento lobby that any citizen concerned about schools can turn to--the equivalent of an AARP. The feeling among some EdVoicers is that the powerful teachers unions mainly are concerned about their members; students tend to rate a lower priority.

This legislative session, the lobby will push bills by state Sen. Jack O'Connell (D-San Luis Obispo) to provide $15,000 bonuses for good teachers working in low-performing schools, by Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford) to give districts flexibility in hiring experts in their fields, and by Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado) to streamline construction and allow charter schools to rent classrooms.

Maureen DiMarco, former Gov. Pete Wilson's education secretary, is one of the advisory board recruits. "I've seen a million of these start up," she says. "To be crass, what's different about this one is it's funded. This won't be a white-glove, do-gooder organization that spends all its time just trying to keep open."

Silicon Valley has untapped riches. For that reason alone, this lobby is likely to make a big splash with politicians.

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